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Lost River
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by Jay Seaver

"Ryan Gosling sure picked the right guys to learn from."
5 stars

Filmmaker Ryan Gosling thanks a number of filmmakers toward the end of the credits to "Lost River", some of whom he has worked with as an actor, and of that group, it's Nicolas Winding Refn who leaps to mind when watching Gosling's first film as writer/director. The influence of "Drive" and "Only God Forgives" is unmistakable, and Gosling uses what he learned working on those films to create a stylish, haunting tale of his own.

Lost River is a town in Michigan, likely not far from Detroit, and like that town it's collapsing, with houses becoming overgrown as the residents cut bait and move south. Single mother of two Billy (Christina Hendricks) aims to stick it out, but she's three months behind on the mortgage and the job that the new bank manager (Been Mendelsohn) refers her to would not be her first choice. Older son Bones (Iain De Caestecker) aims to leave as soon as he's got his car fixed, but his only source of income is scavenging copper from abandoned buildings, and a cruel thug calling himself Bully (Matt Smith) aims to corner that market. It's while fleeing Bully that Bones finds a road that leads underwater; girl next door Rat (Saoirse Ronan) explains the local lore.

The characters in this film have names out of a fairy tale, but Gosling sets his sights higher, stretching toward the mythic in his conception of societal death and rebirth, building toward parallel climaxes where Billy and Bones journey to separate underworlds. For Billy, it's a grotesque man-made version of hell designed to damage her soul in exchange for the money she needs to stay. Simple prostitution would almost am to let her off too easily, so Gosling instead creates a situation where she has trapped herself in a place where death and decay are seen as entertainment.

Bones, meanwhile, seeks an artifact of the town that was there before Lost River, flooded for a reservoir. The reasoning behind doing so may not be completely sound - it's a desperate appeal to magic when all else has failed - but there is a certain logic to it; it's a continuation of his attempts to dig up something of value from the fallen world. That he finds it in a theme park dedicated to dinosaurs just adds to the scale of it; worlds have risen and fallen many times, with new ones upon their buried predecessors.

It is an ambitious vision, and one Gosling and his team to well to realize. It's there that the films he previously starred in come to mind, as he and his team create a world that's worn-down and lived in but also filled with striking imagery (although, admittedly, some of the climactic underwater scenes are a bit tough to follow). The Big Bad Wolf club where Billy goes to work pops eyes in various ways from its monstrous doorway to the inside, dehumanizing in different ways; the so-called ruin porn of the city also gives rise to just plain weird sights as Bully asserts his control over the empty space. The cinematography is cool and crisp; the music by Johnny Jewel is unnerving and thrilling by turns.

Bones is the sort of part that Gosling would probably have played himself a few years back, and De Caestecker seems cut from the same cloth, having Bones come across as something of a blank for viewers to project onto, although also with a layer of anger underneath that comes out nicely. Hendricks is impressive as well, giving Billy a fine combination of determination despite being under pressure from all directions. It's never a bad idea to have Saoirse Ronan in the cast, either, while Matt Smith and Ben Mendelsohn play different types of predators. Even smaller performances like those from Eva Mendes and Reda Kateb have memorable moments.

It's a shame that "Lost River" seems to have all but gone direct to video (in Boston, the theatrical release actually came after it was released on disc); it's the sort of great-looking movie that deserves the big-screen treatment. At least it will still look great no matter what the size of the image, and that only makes its fairy tale of the last people in a crumbling city even better.

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originally posted: 05/22/15 04:27:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2014 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/10/16 Langano Gosling show's promise. 3 stars
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  10-Apr-2015 (R)
  DVD: 05-May-2015

  10-Apr-2015 (15)

  10-Apr-2015 (MA)
  DVD: 05-May-2015

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